Perhaps because I was a city kid, my exposure to wildlife was limited. As I grew into adulthood, the most feral creatures I saw were teenage boys on skateboards.
That changed when I moved to the wooded hills of Oregon many years later. For the first time, I encountered animal communities in my own neighborhood, including deer, raccoons, opossums, field mice, and even skunks.
On first seeing this array of wildlife, I was enthralled; they were just so adorable. With their large, round eyes; button noses; and endearing qualities, they reminded me more of human babies – albeit furry ones – than threatening beasts of the forest.
That initiated my problem: Their cuteness brought out my maternal side. Which, quite naturally, made me want to feed them.
And so a few times a day, I began to toss slices of stale bread to any wild thing that happened to pass by. One evening, a nursing raccoon with four kits appeared on the back deck while I was sweeping. She extended her tiny, exquisitely shaped paw as though asking for a handout, and I was instantly smitten. I decided to upgrade the menu and put out a serving of fresh cat kibble and water. She came back the next evening. And the next.
Eventually, I was dishing out several piles of cat chow to the late-night crowd. Once, I counted nine raccoons all in a row, each devouring its meal in the same fastidious manner.
After the raccoons finished, the shy opossum we’d nicknamed Perry arrived to scoop up any leftovers.
All was well until the wildlife began behaving, well, wildly. The raccoons started squabbling noisily among themselves. They could be heard throughout the entire valley, I was certain. Fervently hoping my neighbors simply thought I was watching the National Geographic Channel with the volume turned all the way up, I slunk inside and stayed put.
A few days later, our homeowners association newsletter arrived in the mail. Among the usual announcements of garage sales and annual meetings came a gentle reminder that feeding the wildlife was not a prudent thing to do. The animals that ambled through our backyards were, after all, foraging, and we humans should not be interfering with their natural activities.
Of course, the admonition made total sense, and I accepted it, but my face flushed with embarrassment as I read the letter. I’d been found out! I was now identified as the notorious local miscreant!
I went downstairs to discuss the matter with my husband, always calm in a crisis. “Well, we know things have gotten out of hand,” he said. “I’m not surprised that the association has come up with a policy about it. They must have gotten complaints.”
“OK, I’m going to stop cold turkey. It’s the right decision,” I said.
It wasn’t easy. And although I told myself that the wildlife around me would survive just fine without cat chow, I felt guilty.
Working on the computer late that night, I ambled into the kitchen for a snack. Only the night light was on, but the mini-blind was up so I had a clear view of the backyard and beyond. As I reached for a box of graham crackers, a winter tableau outside caught my eye: There, on the hillside, and wrapped in a thick shawl, was my neighbor. She was hand-feeding two deer in the frosty cold.
Another animal lover, another miscreant, I thought. Smiling to myself, I drew the blind and went back to work. Even well-intentioned neighborhood associations, it seems, can’t control our human impulse to connect with wild creatures and the natural world.